Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Twenty-Seventh City

by Jonathan Franzen

3 of 5 stars

This first novel by Franzen was alright. It's a big book to swallow at over 500 pages, and the plot is like swimming through a maze of tunnels filled with 90-weight gear lube. With upwards of 50 characters, I repeatedly found myself asking, "Now who was that again?" It must have taken me a month to finish it.

The story takes place in St. Louis, once the 4th largest city in the US, now the 27th. The main character, Martin Probst, who engineered and built the St. Louis arch, gets mixed up in a plot hatched by the new chief of police, S. Jammu, to make millions in real estate by buying up the ghetto, kicking everyone out, and then reviving the ghetto with an urban renewal project, sponsored by the city's 12 most influential business people. Jammu convinces the business people that this is a good idea by kidnapping their wives and blowing up their cars. (As you might guess, I've oversimplified this.)

Franzen's writing style makes this book readable. His stark prose echoes truth and humor. His characters' lonliness is palpable. Unfortunately, this story loses itself in a murky plot.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men
by Cormack McCarthy

4 of 5 stars

No Country for Old Men contains the themes you'd expect to find in most Cormack McCarthy novels, but I found the language more accessible, like McCarthy stripped his usual prose down to its fighting weight. I think this works for and against the book. It makes it more of a page turner and less like--as Todd says--"taking your medicine" than his other books, but it loses some of its poetry, depth, and charm. Either way, No Country for Old Men tells a vivid story about the effects of drugs, money, and modern life on humankind. Death, in the form of a hired gun named Chigurh, is relentless and unforgiving. Truth and justice are tired old men of little consequence. My recommendation: Read this book whilst drowning the troubles of daily life in a Corona in a border town.

Dew Breaker

Dew Breaker
by Edwidge Danticat

3 of 5 stars

This story revolves around a dew breaker (a Haitian prison guard skilled in torture and other coersion methods), his family, and the other people whose lives he has touched. I liked the story, but aside from the dew breaker himself, everyone else was about as deep as a carboard cutout. I wish this book would have developed the other characters, like his daughter, more thoroughly. I really liked the Reader's Digest version of the political situation at this time in Haitian history provided by this story, though.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer

4.5 of 5

This is the best book I've read since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar, a nine-year-old by who lost his father. He finds in father's closet a key in an envelope with the word Black written on it. Oskar covers New York City trying to solve the mystery of the key. Oskar's not your normal kid. He plays tambourine, invents things, wears only white, writes letters to Stephen Hawking, and loves puzzles. He enlists the help of of the old man with the magnetic bed who lives upstairs, and the game is afoot. This book is hilarious and very poignant--I'll even go as far as "touching" even though I hate using that word in any way that isn't facetious. My recommendation: Read this book. Period.

Touching the Void

Touching the Void
by Joe Simpson

4 of 5

A well written, heroic tale of survival in the worst conditions imaginable, Touching the Void put my stomach in knots and made my bones cold. I'd put this story in the same category as Into Thin Air and South. The story: Joe and Simon climb a terrible mountain in Peru. They get careless, Joe breaks his ankle and leg, Simon tries to lower Joe, Joe slips over a cliff, Simon cuts the rope, Joe falls into a crevasse and has to crawl miles and miles back to camp. Ouch. I typically don't like stories about the indominable nature of the human spirit, but this one really got me. Even though I read it in the middle of summer, I'd find that my hands and feet were freezing while I read the accounts of climbing rhime flutes and sleeping in snow caves. My recommendation: Read this book next to a nice warm fire.

Bridge of San Luis Rey

Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder

3 of 5

I'm sure that I could be stoned to death by a bunch of latte-drinking intellectuals for giving this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel 3 stars, but I don't care. I bet San Luis Rey was amazing when it was written in 1927, but I have seen so many variations on this theme (a group of seemingly unrelated people die in a tragic accident and their lives are explored through flashbacks) that it fell flat. Wilder is a writer's writer, a craftsman, and that makes the book worth reading; little tidbits, like, "There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well." kept me going.

A Couple of Days

A Couple of Days
by Tony Vigorito

4 of 5

I had A Couple of Days on my wish list for about two years when I finally bought it, and I wasn't disappointed. This story takes place somewhere between The Fool on the Hill and Skinny Legs and All, and encompasesses ideas of the end of the world, government conspiracies, and the impact of language on society. If you like Tom Robbins, Christopher Moore, or Matt Ruff, you would probably like this book. My recommendation: Read this book while dancing at the edge of apocalypse.

The Known World

The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

4 of 5

The Known World was hard for me to get into at first, and I can't honestly say I loved it, but it is a really well written book that tells an engaging story on a subject that I know almost nothing about: that of free blacks who owned black slaves befor the Civil War. A wealth of richly drawn characters populate The Known World. At first it is hard to keep them all straight, but after I quit trying so hard to do so, the book was a lot easier to read. The story starts with Augustus Townsend buying his way out of slavery from his master, William Robbins. Augustus then buys his wife, Mildred, from Robbins, and later they buy there son Henry. Henry's life has been molded by Robbins to such a degree, however, that--much to his parents dismay--Henry buys a slave as soon as he has enough money. When Henry dies and his plantation and slaves go to his wife, Caldonia, who is strongly influenced by her mother, life gets pretty interesting on the plantation, and across the county.


by Alessandro Baricco

3 of 5

Silk is part fable, part historical fiction, and mostly love story, and can be read in one or two sittings. (One reviewer called it a Buddhist fable disguised as erotic fiction.) Silk tells the story of Herve Joncour, a frenchman who travels to Japan in the late 1800s to obtain silkworm eggs for his local textile mills. It is very poetic and has the repititious nature of a folk tale. I enjoyed it--especially the twist at the end--but don't know if I can recommend it to many people. My recommendation: Read this book sitting next to a shimmering, still pond.

Kite Runner

Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini

3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure why this formulaic book received such overwhelming praise. My favorite characters kept dying, and the “hero,” Amir, was such a spineless anti-hero, he made me want to puke at times (I know that was was the point...I just couldn't go with it). I wish Ali would have kicked his arse. I wanted to see him redeem himself, but he never really did…in my eyes anyway. The ending made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. BUT-- I liked the peripheral characters, and the illustration of life in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban. And I enjoyed the simple, yet colorful language that Hosseini used. Maybe it was just a little too much “indominable nature of the human spirit” for me. And I loved that a child had to save Amir's butt. So I gave it a 3. Maybe I could see 3.5.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Tomcat in Love

Tomcat in Love
by Tim O'Brien

3 of 5 stars

Tomcat in Love is what A Confederacy of Dunces would have been if Tom Robbins had written it.

While discusing the Timothy Cavendish sections of Cloud Atlas my friend Todd told me I'd like this book and loaned it to me. It is zany, at times hilarious, and always outrageous. But it lacked a little something. Plausibility, maybe. Maybe not. At times I could believe that a dorky and delusional college professor (Thomas H. Chippering) plotting revenge against his ex-wife for leaving him could think that every coed on campus wants him. Other times I thought, OK, even the craziest whackjob couldn't believe himself a charming good catch after all that rejection.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book was trying to see through Chippering's stories to glean the truth from them. I just wish there would have been someone to root for in the story. My recommendation: Read this book in a fantasy world you've created in order to make yourself look like less of a pedantic jackass.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Greenlanders

The Greenlanders
by Jane Smiley

3 1/2 of 5 stars

How many chances am I going to give Jane Smiley?

I had to drag myself through this 700 page epic about 14th century Norse people in Greenland. The first few hundred pages were utterly confusing - with dozens of significant and insignificant characters (and no way to distinguish the two) with similar names. If I had only kept a cheat sheet, I'd have done a lot better.

There were moments in this rambling book that were really interesting. The story spans generations of an unlucky family and the core story works. The descriptions of the lifestyle and culture of the Greenlanders also captured my attention. Then the story would crawl all over the place and lose me completely.

Smiley really tried to capture the feel of a Norse epic and lost alot of the readability. I feel like it was an actual accomplishment to finish this book.

A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey

3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book due to the immense amount of press surrounding it and the author. Since there was such outrage over the fact that not all the contents in this "memoir" were true, it seemed as though people became so emotionally involved in the book that the subsequent controversy became actual betrayal to the reader. I had to see for myself.

What I found was not great literature, but an interesting character study nonetheless. James Frey's story moves quickly, for sure - I read most of the book in large 2-3 hour sittings. However, his hubris became somewhat annoying halfway through the book, but offered a lot of insight into Frey as a person. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that Frey wished he was this character he concocted - a real bad ass. To me, it was so obviously a cover-up for his own insecurity and emotionally fragility that it became almost pathetic.

Definitely an interesting read if you are curious about addiction and treatment. Probably not deserving of all the press.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bark of the Dogwood

Bark of the Dogwood: A Tour of Southern Homes and Gardens
by Jackson Tippett McCrae

4 of 5 stars

I loved the beginning of this book as much as any book I’ve ever read: A man remembering himself as a young boy, treating in the worst possible way the one who loved him most ; the victim doing nothing, allowing the boy to remember and regret that moment forever--and teaching him a lesson. That moment sets the tone for Bark of the Dogwood.

McCrae tells the story of an eccentric boy, Strekfus, growing up in the South with some messed up parents and a wonderful housekeeper, and creates some hilarious laugh-out-loud moments. That boy grows up to be a writer for a magazine that allows him to explore the events of his childhood and family history that had the most impact on him, many of them -- not so funny. Bark of the Dogwood is really two stories that could be read independently. One story (told as a series of magazine articles) takes place in the past, the other in the present, each told in distinctly different styles.

At times, it feels like a story about child abuse and neglect, but, for me, in the end it was a story about a very strong, loving woman who took great risks to protect and care for someone she loved.

One caveat: Bark contains one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes of infanticide that could ever be described. I would even rank it above the Dead-Baby Tree in Blood Meridian. McCrae goes too far.

If you liked Behind the Scenes at the Museum, you will probably like this book. My recommendation: Read this book while wearing your mother’s evening gown and high heels and standing on a stool in the kitchen.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Wailing Wind

The Wailing Wind
by Tony Hillerman

3 of 5 stars

When Navajo tribal police officer Bernie Manuelito pokes a drunk passed out in the front seat of his pickup truck and the drunk turns out to be stone dead, Bernie entangles herself in the latest of Hillerman's Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn mysteries. The Wailing Wind contains all the classic elements this mystery series: Something worth killing for (in this case, a long lost gold mine), good bad guys, stories of the Dineh culture, uncooperative Feds, and descriptions of the Southwest that make you pack your bags and buy a plane ticket to Gallup.

There are 16 or 17 books in the Chee/Leaphorn series, and I think this is the 12th one I've read. So for me, some of the mystery was missing. I think I had the major plot points worked out about half way through. But I don't think the mystery is the main reason I read this series. I read these because I like the characters: Leaphorn, the (now) retired police lieutenant; Chee, the younger, brash officer with a deep connection to Navajo spirituality; and the reservation landscape, a lively character in itself. OK, the main reason is to read some fluff in between bigger, weightier books, but I do like the characters, and The Wailing Wind provides further development for each character. If you haven't read any books in this series, I probably wouldn't recommend this as your first; maybe Theif in Time. My recommendation: Read this book from atop a mesa anywhere in the Four Corners region. Even better if a nasty thunderstorm is heading your way.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks
By Don Harington

4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because I liked Harington's Butterfly Weed. Like most of Harington's books, TAOTAO is set in the small town of Stay More way back in the valleys of the Ozark Mountains. Beginning with the arrival of the first settlers in what would become Stay More, brothers Jacob and Noah Ingledew, TAOTAO meanders through the history and growth of this hamlet. It is part historical fiction, part tall tale, with a stong dose of folklore, explaining why Rotary and Lions clubs generally meet on the second Tuesday of each month and why outsiders think that all Ozarkian woodspeople are dumb hillbillies. It's rich with humor, horse sense, sex, resistance to PROG RESS, and, most of all, bigeminality.

TAOTAO is the Ozarkian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, only much more enjoyable to read. It isn't a real page turner, but quite a bit of fun. My recommendation: Read this book on your front porch with a jug of corn whisky.


by Isabel Allende

3 of 5 stars

Allende’s account tells the story of Diego de la Vega, beginning with a brief history of his grandfather, father, and mother and ending at the beginning of the traditional Zorro stories. We’ve all seen the movies and television shows where Zorro is leaping from buildings, sliding down ropes, swinging on flag poles, bullwhipping guns from the bad guys’ hands, and fencing with the best of them; In Zorro, Allende provides the backstory for this freedom fighter extraordinaire that explains how Zorro became the fantastic hero he was. Diego de la Vega spends his childhood in California wrestling and sparring with his best friend and “milk brother,” Bernardo. Diego witnesses the terrible treatment of the California natives by the Spanish colonists. Then he learns the ropes-- literally--while sailing to French-occupied Spain, where he takes fencing lessons from the best swordsman in the world, who also happens to be a member of a secret society that vows to protect the weak. Diego and Bernardo become friends with Gypsies who have a small circus and further hone their acrobatic talents. In Spain, Zorro seizes his first opportunities to put on his mask and protect the oppressed. All said, Zorro is a well-told swashbuckling adventure full interesting of historical tidbits.

For me, Zorro does for the legend of the Fox what Batman Begins does for the legend of the Dark Knight: creates a believable past and explains the skills and tools that each crusader has for fighting crime.

The few things that bugged me: Allende is too present, too visible, as the storyteller in the book--a bit ham-fisted for such an experienced writer. And the Epilogue was purely self-gratifying tripe; I wished I hadn’t read it. If I hadn’t read the Epilogue, who knows, I might have given this book 4 of 5 stars. My recommendation: Read this book in the spare time between your fencing lessons in Barcelona.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Antonia

My Antonia
by Willa Cather
5 of 5 stars

This book was really wonderful, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it a 5-star book. The plot, written in the early 1900s, isn't catchy or exciting. The characters and the story is very simple. Most likely the best part of the book is Cather's finely crafted prose - her talent is in her beautiful descriptions of both people and landscapes, without being wordy or boring.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


by Ayn Rand
2.5 of 5 stars

I’d been meaning to read some more Ayn Rand ever since I finished Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, which includes a 6-page synopsis of Atlas Shrugged. Oh, and one of the characters is a virtual Ayn Rand that exists inside an electronic lantern. Anthem trumpets a familiar Randian theme: Everything good about the world derives from individuality and personal freedom. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about Anthem, but it does smell a bit like Corporate America. And it can be read in one sitting. If you’ve read The Fountain Head or Atlas Shrugged, no need to read Anthem. My recommendation: Read this book while quitting your corporate job and scoffing all forms of conformity…or don’t read it at all...just read the synopsis of Atlas Shrugged in Sewer, Gas & Electric.

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
by Tim Cahill
3.5 of 5 stars

Immediately after finishing A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, I picked up Jaguars, another collection of essays by Cahill—more timely, but with similar themes. Cahill’s often self-deprecating wry humor and crack-a-joke-in-the-face-of-death attitude make for fun reading. He’s like Allan Quatermain meets Anthony Bourdain, with a little David Attenborough tossed in. Quite a few of the stories feature thrill-seeking sports, such as spelunking, rock climbing, skydiving, swimming with sharks, and hang-gliding (after being dropped from a hot-air balloon over Bozeman), but they were complemented with tales of giant gorillas, sea turtles, Livingston wind, and the jungles of South America. Be aware that this is a collection of essays, a sort of travelogue. Each stands on its own and they aren’t really cohesive. If you like Jaguars, check out A Cook’s Tour. My recommendation: Read this book in another country, preferably one without running water or electricity, but rife with deadly wildlife and ancient ruins.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Edward Abbey: A Life

Edward Abbey: A Life
by James M. Cahalan
3 of 5 stars

I don’t read many autobiographies (In fact, the only other one I can remember reading is one about Ben Franklin.). This book did not whet my appetite for them; I struggled through it. Cactus Ed is one of my favorite and most admired writers, and a fantastic Western character. The Monkeywrench Gang is one of my top 20 books of all time. I loved Edward Abbey: A Life because it revealed the dichotomy that was Ed Abbey by describing how Abbey created a public persona, Cactus Ed—a virtual caricature of himself—while disclosing the real Ed—a scholar, self-denied naturalist, and introvert. The book also did a good job of describing the events of Abbey’s life, his process of writing, and his passion for the wilderness that often caused him to sacrifice family and relationships. I hated this book for its redundancy (the author tells you at least five times that Doug Peacock was the inspiration for Hayduke in TMG and Hayduke Lives! before Peacock is even introduced as a friend of Abbey’s, then he tells you at least three more times) and its inability to follow a timeline. I wouldn’t have been so worried about the chronological order of things, but the chapters have names like 1959-1964, yet they contain events from long before and long after these dates, confusing things bit. Also, the book was a bit too scholarly. I felt like I was reading a biography of Hubert Humphrey. All in all, I’m glad I read it for the content, despite the style. My recommendation: Read this book in a lookout tower over the Grand Canyon or in the bottom of a slickrock canyon outside of Moab.

A Wolverine is Eating My Leg

A Wolverine is Eating My Leg
by Tim Cahill

3 of 5 stars

This collection of Cahill’s essays and articles, written (I’m guessing) between about 1975 and the late 80’s, was my first exposure to this writer, except for a couple of articles I’ve read in National Geographic and Outside magazines. The development of Cahill’s style over the years is evident and interesting to watch happen. The articles run the gamut from hanging out with Dian Fossey’s mountain gorillas on a volcano in Africa, to hunting Sasquatch in Oregon, to extreme skiing with Bozeman locals and legends at Bridger Bowl. As with most collections, I loved some articles, some were OK, and some I just didn’t care about. Although I found some glee in the extreme skiing article (it’s fun reading a book about routes you’ve snowboarded and people you know), I most enjoyed the article about Cahill’s infiltration of the Susan and Tony Alamo cult in California during the spiritual revival of the mid-70’s. My recommendation: Take this book with you on the airplane.

Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
4 1/2 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read some Margaret Atwood for quite some time, so when I saw this book on Time's top 100 books of all time list, I thought I'd pick it up. Overall, I was quite impressed. The book is somewhat of a mystery, where facts are dosed out to you bit by bit. The story begins with Iris, the main character, whose sister has recently committed suicide (or has she?) by driving off a bridge. Later we find out that her sister, Laura, had a posthumous book published, The Blind Assassin. From that point, Atwood switches between Iris's story, and the novel, The Blind Assassin. Also mixed in are newspaper articles to help you piece things together.

This book wasn't a page turner, but the writing was stellar and the concept unique. Quite an effort from Atwood, and it showed. Great book.


by Anya Seton
3 1/2 of 4

Unfortunately, this book didn't quite live up to its 5 star (!) rating on Amazon. It was good, but maybe I've been reading too much historical fiction because it just felt a little flat to me. It's the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, a famous couple from 14th century England. Their well-documented affair spans many decades to the point when they finally marry, despite British convention, late in their lives.

Katherine was written in 1954, and the language has an old-timey feel to it. The story drags in certain points and the book is quite long. These things made the plot lose its impact to me, although certain parts were quite entertaining and overall this is a fairly good story. Would not recommend unless you are specifically interested in this bit of history.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Case Histories

Case Histories
by Kate Atkinson
4 of 5

After loving the truly unique and funny "Behind the Scenes at the Musuem," I was really excited to read Kate Atkinson's latest, and widely believed to be her best novel. "Case Histories" starts with the stories of 3 unrelated cold cases, then moves to modern day and tells the story of the private detective hired to solve them.

While I really enjoyed this book, "Behind the Scenes" was by far my favorite of the two. The book had plenty of Kate Atkinson's signature dark humor, but the subject matter isn't as easy to laugh at, and the plot seemed a touch contrived. Still, far above much of the literature out there, and a great novel.

The Bark of the Dogwood

The Bark of the Dogwood, A tour of Southern homes and gardens
by Jackson Tippet McCrae
3 1/2 of 5

This book definitely had a lot going for it. So why the poor rating, you ask? The story is set up with chapters alternating between the story of a journalist assigned to do a home and gardens of the South feature for a magazine, and the actual articles he writes (memoirs from his childhood in the South). The articles were terrific, the narratives between articles - not so great. Top it off with a truly bizarre ending that I still haven't quite come to grips with, and the end result is a mediocre to good book.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

By Jae on November 8, 2005 01:13PM (MST)

(4+ of 5)

1015 Amazon customers can't be wrong. Well, I don't think they were this time, anyway. This is a great book. In my mind, this book does for autism what Set This House in Order did for multiple personality disorder; it gives the reader a little insight into what it means to suffer the affliction while remaining wholly entertaining.

The hero of this story, an autistic teenager named Christopher, finds the neighbor's poodle skewered with a pitchfork and decides to play Sherlock Holmes and write a mystery book about it. As Christopher investigates the dog's death, he learns about the people who live around him, and you learn what it is like to live with autism: counting red and yellow cars to decide what kind of day today is going to be; being overwhelmed by your senses; living life by a rigid (but not entirely inflexible) set of seemingly arbitrary rules. And you might learn a little bit about math and logic along the way.

Another great thing about this book: It is a very fast read (3-1/2 hours).

Butterfly Weed by Donald Harington

By Jae on September 23, 2005 12:24PM (MDT)

3+ of 5

I picked this up as light reading after finishing Lonesome Dove. It was perfect. Harington knows how to tell a story. I laughed every single time I picked up this book. It is rife with Ozarkian folklore, folk medicine, folk humor, and folks. It's a bit fantastical as Doc Swain cures people in their dreams, meets his lover in their dreams for their first romantic liaison, and sets up a student who is endowed with two penises with another student who's got two vaginas, but this aspect is buffered by the telling of more than you ever want to know about tuberculosis. Harington has written a bunch of other books about the Ozark town of Stay More, and I think I might need to read one or two of them.

This is what Booklist has to say:

While gathering backwoods lore during the 1920s, Vance Randolph (a folklore collector) contracts typhoid fever and comes under the care of Doc Swain. From his nursing home bed, Vance narrates the history of Colvin Swain, who was conceived in a patch of butterfly weed, sliced from his mother's womb, and given to a cave-dwelling folk doctor, who taught Colvin everything he knows about treating the sick in the Ozarks. Doc Swain settles in Stay More, Arkansas, and practices medicine by mixing folk remedies in with scientific procedures. At one point he is healing patients in their dreams, but the dream cures nearly bankrupt him because sleeping patients don't have to pay. At another point Swain is teaching hygiene, psychology, and basketball at a Baptist academy. Here he meets the lusty Venda Breedlove, her son Russ, and the love of his life, Tenny Tennison....

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

By Jae on August 8, 2005 09:36AM (MDT)

(5 of 5)

It took me about three years to finish this book, but it was worth the wait. I would pick this up between books, before my Amazon order arrived or I could get to the bookstore. It didn't really grab me for the first hundred pages or so (I'd guess that I picked it up 3 or 4 different times and would just start where I left off). But the last time it took and I plowed through the last 700 pages, reading the last 125 pages or so in one night.

Lonesome Dove teems with engaging characters and exciting situations. I loved the way it made the West seem untrammeled, yet as small as your local neighborhood.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

by Nicole on July 13, 2005 11:35AM (MDT)

4.5 of 5

This was such a great book, really fresh and innovative - a great first-person narrative. Loved the dark humor and laughed out loud. Here is the Amazon blurb:

"I exist!" exclaims Ruby Lennox upon her conception in 1951, setting the tone for this humorous and poignant first novel in which Ruby at once celebrates and mercilessly skewers her middle-class English family. Peppered with tales of flawed family traits passed on from previous generations, Ruby's narrative examines the lives in her disjointed clan, which revolve around the family pet shop. But beneath the antics of her philandering father, her intensely irritable mother, her overly emotional sisters, and a gaggle of eccentric relatives are darker secrets--including an odd "feeling of something long forgotten"--that will haunt Ruby for the rest of her life. Kate Atkinson earned a Whitbread Prize in 1995 for this fine first effort.

Re: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

By Jae at 08:47AM (MDT) on Aug 8, 2005

I finished Behind the Scenes at the Museum at 6 o'clock this morning. I have to give it an enthusiastic four stars out of five (but then again, I love books about messed up families). Kate Atkinson has a lot to live up to after this first novel.

The story spans the family history of Ruby Lennox, starting with her great grandmother in pre-WWI England and ending with her and her sisters, but not in chronological order. Atkinson introduces so many characters in this relatively short book that you think There's no way she can keep this all together, but then she does, tying up all the loose ends. Although, I could have used a family tree.

Atkinson nails the voice of a child in a way I haven't seen since Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. I loved the in utero narrative and plan to go back and read it again, probably tonight.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

By Nicole on July 7, 2005 07:51AM (MDT)

(5 of 5)

I really loved this book.

The book consists of 6 stories, independent of each other but with connections that are revealed throughout the book. The stories form an "onion," that is, the first story stops midway and is finished at the end of the book, the second story is finished second to last, etc. The sixth story is complete in the center. Each story takes place in chronological order; the 1st story in the 1850s, the next in the 1930s, then 1970s, and so on. There's a strong message throughout that ties the stories together, and although it won't be a new message for most people, it still feels original and fresh because of the format, and it lingered with me for days after finishing.

My only criticisms are that it can be hard to switch gears so frequently - each story is so radically different. The first story is nearly impossible to get through, and unfortunately ends the book, so I somewhat dreaded getting back to it, even though it was much more intriguing when resumed. Similarly, my favorite story by far was the 6th, middle story so I was bummed when it ended, knowing that I wouldn't be revisiting it like the others.

All in all, this was an excellent, really smart, original read. Highly recommended.

Re: Cloud Atlas

By Jae at 12:42PM (MST) on Nov 8, 2005

I would also give Cloud Atlas 5 stars. Although the mechanism used to break the stories up seems a little contrived at times, I think Mitchell pulls it off. He (in the form of Frobisher) even admits at one point that he isn't sure it is going to work, and that only time will tell. This book could have been published as a collection of short stories, and it would have been good, but by splitting the stories in half and telling them in ascending/descending order, the theme of the stories is strengthened. And I love the way that Mitchell suggests who his influences are for certain tales.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

by Nicole on May 10, 2005 02:32PM (MDT)

(4.5 of 5)

I think this book was, like, required reading for women about 3 years ago. I just got around to reading it this month and I can see why it was so popular. It's a fictional work based on a woman mentioned briefly in the Bible. Dinah was the only daughter of Jacob and there is a short chapter in the Bible about her involvement in a violent encounter between her brothers and local royalty. Anita Diamant builds this small bit of information into a story of Dinah's life. However, I don't think you need to have a knowledge or even an interest in the Bible to enjoy this book. The Biblical events (Jacob wrestling with God, Joseph sold into slavery, etc.) are overshadowed by the fiction of the book, which is the most captivating part of the story. You may know the "characters" well, but they are explored with a depth that can only occur when imagination plays a part.

I thought the story was beautifully told, the characters were rich and deep, and Dinah was a compelling heroine. I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it.

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

By Jae on May 6, 2005 12:44PM (MDT)

(3 of 5)

Scott loaned me this book. It was written by the father of a friend of his.

I had a little trouble getting going with this one. Like a lot of detective novels, it started out a little slow. The story starts down in Lousiana, then moves north to Missoula, the Flathead, and the Front Range. I really started to enjoy it once they got up north, not just because of the locale, but because Dave Robicheaux, the main character, really started messing with people's heads once he got to Montana. BCB has all the trappings of a classic detective story: a former alcoholic, ex-cop whose wife was whacked by drug dealers (I'm thinking that happened in the previous Dave Robicheaux novel; it's a series) is framed for a murder by some shady dudes and has to travel to unfamiliar territory to clear his name, enlisting the help of his ex-partner and a college roommate, and falling in lust and love along the way. Oh, and don't forget the nuns.

If you like Tony Hillerman novels, you'll probably like this one.

Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff

By Jae on May 6, 2005 12:43PM (MDT)

(3 of 5)

OK, so it wasn't Set This House in Order but I liked it anyway. I just couldn't dislike a book where the antagonists are the Rubbermaid (a mannequin dressed in a vinyl S&M jumpsuit carrying a bowl of prophylactics) and a parade dragon that was created by a group of engineering students, and the antagonists are a mongrel dog and a writer who controls the wind. The story brims with literary references (many Shakespearean or mythological and nearly all lost on me), including characters named Puck and Calliope and a box inscribed "Pandora." It is a cavorting tale that makes most Tom Robbins books look factual and linear. However, it gets a bit thin at the end; it's predictable and Ruff has trouble tying it all together.

Hey, Nostradamous! by Douglas Coupland

By Jae on March 16, 2005 09:12AM (MST)

(3+ of 5)

I was loaned this book at the same time as Coupland's All Families Are Psychotic. This is another quick and easy read, but worthwhile. It's full of interesting characters and is beautifully told. It lacks the humor of some of Coupland's other works (more like Life After God than Generation X), but then again a Columbine-type lunchroom massacre isn't a particularly funny backdrop (the story doesn't dwell on the violence or try to explain the motives).

Amazon blurb:

In 1988, a catastrophic episode of teen violence changes a suburban community forever. Hey Nostradamus! is Douglas Coupland's keenly observant exploration of this tragic landscape. With unflinching candor and black humor, Hey Nostradamus! follows various voices across two decades: the teenagers whose ordinary preoccupations with sex and spirituality will never evolve past that moment; the parents whose sudden exposure to their children's passionate underground world threatens their deepest convictions; and those who come to know the troubled survivors only later in life, who will only ever have an inkling of what really transpired.

Utterly unexpected, Hey Nostradamus! wrestles with religion and with sorrow and its acceptance. It will take you to a place you didn't know existed.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

By Jae on March 16, 2005 08:56AM (MST)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Now THIS is a great book (Thanks for loaning it to me, Scott). I really can't say enough about it. At first, Chabon's style (heavy on the narrative and I've never had to look up so many words) seemed a bit much to me, but after reading the first chapter I was completely hooked into the story with it's comic book superheroes and villains, real-life heros and villains, Golums, great escapes and prestidigitations. It's a big book, but worth the time.

Amazon blurb:

This brilliant epic novel set in New York and Prague introduces us to two misfit young men who make it big by creating comic-book superheroes. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America the comic book. Inspired by their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapists, The Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men.

Re: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Nicole at 10:07AM (MDT) on Apr 29, 2005

I don't think I liked this book as much as Scott and Jae.
There were things I really liked about it, but the narrative was so heavy that the book became almost a homework assignment - I just wanted to read it to get it finished. The story just kind-of meanders along and I was left wondering what the purpose was. I think my biggest criticism with the book is the handling of the characters. I would feel connected to certain characters at points and then feel almost nothing for them 100 pages later. There were times they seemed really deep and richly-drawn and I could understand their motivations, and then in other parts their actions were, to me, so out of character and unbelievable that they seemed put there simply to move the story in a certain direction.
There are parts of this book that are really fascinating. There are chapters that I loved. Getting to them was a chore. This book could have been about 200 pages shorter.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

By Jae on March 16, 2005 08:43AM (MST)

(Rating 4 of 5)

If you saw the movie Smoke Signals and liked it, you really should read this book. If you didn't see the movie, read it anyway. Smoke Signals was based on some of these stories, but only about half of them make it into the movie. It is a quick and easy read (I think I read it in 3 or 4 days), yet one of the most poetic books I've read in quite a while.

Amazon blurb:

In this darkly comic short story collection, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, brilliantly weaves memory, fantasy, and stark realism to paint a complex, grimly ironic portrait of life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. These twenty-two interlinked tales are narrated by characters raised on humiliation and government-issue cheese, and yet are filled with passion and affection, myth and dream. There is Victor, who as a nine-year-old crawled between his unconscious parents hoping that the alcohol seeping through their skins might help him sleep, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who tells his stories long after people stop listening, and Jimmy Many Horses, dying of cancer, who writes letters on stationary that reads "From the Death Bed of Jimmy Many Horses III," even though he actually writes then on his kitchen table. Against a backdrop of alcohol, car accidents, laughter, and basketball, Alexie depicts the distances between Indians and whites, reservation Indians and urban Indians, men and women, and mostly poetically between modern Indians and the traditions of the past.

All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

By Jae on March 16, 2005 08:32AM (MST)

(Rating: 3 of 5)

My friend Sabine loaned me this book over Thanksgiving after talking about how messed up our families are. I have to admit, it did make me feel better about mine.

This family, the Drummonds, is fucked up. The story is almost completely implausible, but it is fiction after all. I gave this book a 4, although I probably would have given it a 3 if I didn't like Douglas Coupland's other stories so much.

Amazon blurb:

The most disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction.

The Drummond family descends upon the state of Florida, cutting a swath through Disney World, Cape Canaveral, the swamps and the highways, gathering to watch the launch into space of their beloved daughter and sister, Sarah. What should be a cause for celebration becomes instead the impetus for a series of mishaps and coincidences that place them in constant peril. In a family where gunplay, black market negotiations and kidnapping are all part of an afternoon in the sun, you can only imagine what happens when things take a turn for the worse.

As the family spins dangerously out of control, the story unfolds at a lightning-fast pace. With one plot twist after the other, the Drummonds fall apart and come together in the most unexpected ways.

Heartwarming and maddeningly human, the family Coupland creates is like one you've never seen before-with the possible exception of your own.